Chapter 4. History: Ist-XVIIIth Century, Oleg Bgazhba - 'The Abkhazians: A Handbook' by George Hewitt (Editor) Richmond, Surrey: The Curzon Press 1999.
The ancient Abkhazian tribes of Apsilians, Abazgians, Sanigians are known to have dwelt on the territory of Abkhazia from the first centuries of our era. They had split off from the one-time but disintegrated ethno-cultural community of the Heniokhs, who also resided here. Politically speaking, they represented early-class states that were an organic, albeit peripheral, part of the Roman-Byzantine cultural world. For this reason the coastal fortifications of late-classical Abkhazia were part of the outer so-called 'Limes Ponticus' [Pontic Frontier] (marked by castles at Pitsunda, Sebastopolis, and Ziganis, where the 'Theodosian', 'Claudian' and 'Valentian' cohorts were billeted). In Egypt there served a standing cohort bearing the title of 'First Cohort of the Abazgians'. During the reign of the emperor Justinian (527-565), because of the strained relations with Persia, an inner 'Limes Caucasicus' [Caucasian Frontier] was also created, which encompassed the fortresses of the Abazgians, Apsilians and the Missimians, one of the Apsilian tribes -- Trakhea, Tsibil, Tsakhar, etc... These and a range of other strongholds (Latin cl(a)usura) together with the local garrisons for payment defended the ancient roads along which three branches of the Great Silk Route (roads through Abazgia, Apsilia and Missimiania) began to run, as a result of Persian-Byzantine wars, over the territory of Abkhazia to the North Caucasus. It is not excluded that it was along just these paths that Byzantine monks brought over by way of contraband in their crooks the silkworm from China to Europe. Control over the ancient Abkhazian early-class states of the Empire was effected via neighbouring Lazika, with which Apsilia had a border in the VIth century roughly along the basin of the R. Ingur. But the relations of the ancient Abkhazian tribes with Byzantium were not unclouded. Proof of this are the battles by the walls of Trakhea (550) or Tsakhar (556) as well as the stand-off at the fortress of Tsibilium. It is entirely natural that the whole male population was mobilised, having as weapons swords of wrought damask (the earliest attestation of damask-steel on the territory of the former USSR), axes for hurling -- 'Frenchies', huge tips with leaden stabilisers against Persian elephants, catapults, and many others.
From the IInd to the VIIth century on the territory of Abkhazia there existed the original 'Ts’ebelda/Ts’abal culture', defined by settlements, burials, town-sites, fortresses, churches, etc...
It is widely believed that the first preaching of Christianity on the territory of Abkhazia was carried out by Andrew the First-Called and Simon the Canaanite -- the latter according to ecclesiastical legend was buried in New Athos (north of Sukhum). The first reliable evidence, however, on the Christians of Abkhazia belongs to the end of the IIIrd and start of the IVth century, when Pitiunt (Pitsunda) was turned into a place of banishment for Christians, and so that is where their first community was formed in the Caucasus. Stratophil, Bishop of Pitiunt, represented this community at the first ecumenical Church Council at Nicæa in 325. Officially the local population of Abkhazia adopted Christianity in the 30s-40s of the VIth century during the reign of the emperor Justinian the Great. It was at this time that the local population started to wear crosses next to the skin. First pastor among the Apsilians was Bishop Constantine. At the imperial court in Constantinople a school was founded where Abkhazian children were given special tuition, and at his own expense a church was constructed in Abkhazia itself by Justinian.
In the VIIth-VIIIth centuries power passed by right of inheritance in Abkhazia -- a list of these rulers survives under the title 'The Divan of Abkhazian Kings'. It is worth pointing out that the Abkhazian king Constantine II (he is the one to whom the pendant seal carrying the inscription 'Constantine the Abazgian' belongs -- see illustration 3) was married to the daughter of a Khazar king, whose sister was wife of the Byzantine emperor Constantine V. In 708-711, on his back from Alania to Byzantium, Lev the Isaurian visited here; he was the future emperor of Byzantium and progenitor of the Isaurian dynasty.
In 737 the Arab army of Murwan II ibn Muhammed invaded the Transcaucasus. It suffered a shattering defeat by the walls of Anakopia, the chief fortress of the Abkhazian Princedom and subsequently the original capital of the Abkhazian Kingdom. This victory, as well as the support of the Byzantine emperor Lev the Isaurian, and a dynastic marriage with Gurandukht’, youngest daughter of Mir, king of Kartli, all helped Leon I the Abasgian to become ruler of a vast territory encompassing Abazgia, Apsilia, Missimiania and the Laz Kingdom, in practice almost the whole of Western Transcaucasia, which led through the passage of time to the formation of the early feudal state known as the Abkhazian Kingdom. The anonymous author of a Georgian chronicle of the XIth century describes this important event thus:
'When the [Byzantine] Greeks grew weak, the ruler of the Abkhazians split off from them; by name he was Leon, nephew (being son of his brother) to the ruler Leon, upon whom possession of Abkhazia had been bestowed by right of inheritance. This second Leon was son of the daughter of the Khazar king and, availing himself of their (sc. Khazarian) might, divorced himself from the Greeks, seized control of Abkhazia and Egrisi as far as the Likhi [mountains] and took upon himself the name of King of the Abkhazians' (See p.251 of Q’aukhchishvili's 1955 edition of the Georgian chronicles = Kartlis Tskhovreba I, or pp.56-57 of Amichba [Amch’ba] 1988, where a Russian translation is appended). This event is usually dated to between 788 and 797 (or the very end of the VIIIth century). From this time the Abkhazian Kingdom, one of the most powerful early-feudal states in the Caucasus, emerged into the political arena, and its capital was transferred from Anakopia to Kutaisi (in the west Georgian province of Imereti).
ll of this hastened the process of consolidation between the Abkhazian tribes, the result of which became the shaping by the IXth century of an Abkhazian feudal nationality, the common ancestor of both the Abkhazians proper and also the Abazinians, which latter were later to resettle in the North Caucasus, where they live to the present day. This crossing via the K’lukhor Pass occurred in the XIVth century in the wake of changes consequent upon the Mongol incursions into the Caucasus.
The Abkhazian Kingdom, with the Leonid dynasty at its head, lasted for some two centuries and was at its height by the time it came to an end. The Abkhazian kings conducted an active eastern policy in Transcaucasia in the struggle with Armenia for Kartli. Thus, the Abkhazian king Constantine III made an inscription on the Samts’evrisi church near Khashuri (the very centre of Georgia) where one reads of the construction here of a canal in the twentieth year of his reign. Another inscription concerns Hereti [an old eastern province of Georgia incorporating Saingilo in today's Azerbaijan -- Editor] -- this inscription on the Eredvi church [in today's province of South Ossetia -- Editor] speaks of his campaign in this region. The cathedral at Ch’q’ondidi (Mart’vili) in Mingrelia in particular was built by Constantine's successor, Giorgi II, who founded there an episcopate and adorned the cathedral with relics of the holy martyrs.
With the help of this king Byzantium effected the conversion of Alania in the North Caucasus. In the time of another Abkhazian king, Leon III, a cathedral was raised at Mykw (near Ochamchira), where an episcopal seat was established. Then in 964 he had a constructional inscription done on the K’umurdo church (east of modern Vardzia, which is just north of the Georgian-Turkish border). This allows us to conclude that the south-eastern frontier of the Abkhazian Kingdom extended at this period to around the modern, largely Armenian-populated town of Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia.
Towards the end of the Xth century (975-978) the eastern policy of the Abkhazian Kingdom, which was leading objectively to the unification of a significant part of Western and Central Transcaucasia, found completion in the formation of a new state -- 'The Kingdom of the Abkhazians and the Kartvelians', which later became famous as the united Georgian Kingdom. Bagrat’ III, whose father was Georgian (Gurgen IV of the west Georgian province of K’lardzheti, in today's Turkey; his adoptive father was Davit III of T’ao, also now in Turkey) but whose mother, Gurandukht’, belonged to the royal family of the Leonids, became in 978 the first king of this kingdom. It was also during the Xth century that the language of the church in Abkhazia shifted from Greek to Georgian (Inal-Ipa 1965.570). Upto the beginning of the XIIth century Kutaisi remained the capital of the kingdom 'of the Abkhazians and Kartvelians' (Tiflis became the capital only from 1122, after the expulsion from there of the Arab emirate that had been established in the VIIth century), but the title of the Georgian Bagrat’ids preserved upto the middle of the XIIIth century in first place the name of the Abkhazians as a tribute to the memory of their leading role in the unification of the country. One can read about this not only in the Georgian chronicles but also on the coins of Bagrat’ IV and Giorgi II found in the Abkhazian village of Lykhny -- 'King of the Abkhazians and Kartvelians and the Most Noble' (nobilissimus). And at the royal Georgian court itself at the end of the XIIth century the language of the ancestors of the contemporary Abkhazians (in the Georgian rendering 'Apsar' from the native Abkhazian ethnonym Apswa) was still well-known and respected. Thus, Queen Tamar (1184-1213) gave her son Giorgi the second name Lasha, which, as the chronicler noted, 'is translated from the language of the Apsars as enlightener of the universe' -- in Abkhaz 'a-laʂa means 'clear, bright' and 'a-laʂa-ra 'brightness; enlightenment'.
Subsequently the development of feudal relations and the inroad of the Mongols helped to bring about the disintegration of the 'Kingdom of the Abkhazians and Kartvelians' (starting from the second half of the XIIIth century), which led in the final analysis to the formation of a host of kingdoms and princedoms, including that of Abkhazia.
At the head of the Abkhazian princedom (the Tskhum Province) stood representatives of the Chachba family. This surname is possibly first mentioned in the middle of the XIth century in connection with the siege of Anakopia.
The struggle between the Abkhazian Chachba and the Mingrelian Dadiani princes for the Tskhum Province lasted throughout the whole XIVth century, as a result of which part of this province became part of a new political entity called Sabediano (a Mingrelian princedom).
At the self-same time Genoese trading-posts appear on the territory of Abkhazia. The largest began to be called Se/avastopolis. This important commercial and industrial centre figures on European maps over the following 200 years (see the map at the end of this article and reproductions at the end of the volume). Its quarters, as before, spread out over the left bank of the R. Basla. On the red flag of the town was depicted a human palm, features retained as part of the flag of the post-Soviet Republic of Abkhazia.
Apart from Sevastopolis, other trading-posts were set up by the Genoese: Kakari (Gagra), Santa-Sofia (Alahadzy), Petsonda (Pitsunda), Cavo-di-Buxo (Bambora/Gudauta), Nikofia (Anakopia), Tamansa/Tomasso (T’amsh). Administratively speaking, all these colonies were subject to the town of Kaffe (modern Feodosia in the Crimea).
In 1330 there already existed in Sevastopolis a large Catholic community with its own bishopric and cemetery.
In the XVth century Sevastopolis became the main port of the whole Eastern Black Sea Littoral, with consular presence. At this time differences emerged between the Genoese and local princes which were successfully settled with the help of diplomats and gifts.
It is impossible to underestimate the significance of the Genoese colonisation of Abkhazia in the XIVth-XVth centuries, for at this period, disregarding the slave-trade, there was a flourishing of the local material culture, which is evidenced by the monuments themselves that have been uncovered by archæologists during recent decades (fortresses, churches with graveyards, etc...). At the same time a transit-route for trade began to operate in the Middle Ages across Abkhazia to the North Caucasus (Genoa-Golden Horde).
Throughout the XVth-XVIth centuries the Mingrelian Dadiani princes were seeking to gain control of the remaining part of Abkhazia as far as Dzhiketi [sc. the coastal area incorporating Sadz, Ubykh and neighbouring Circassian territory -- Editor], which was ruled by Chachba princes. As a result of this, the political boundaries of the Abkhazian and Mingrelian princedoms were constantly changing depending upon the situation, war or peace. In the XVIIth century there occurred between the Abkhazian and Mingrelian feudals an internecine 'Thirty-Year War', which was distinguished by extraordinary cruelty. A most active part in this war was taken by representatives of the North Caucasian peoples -- Dzhigets, Abazinians, Kabardians -- whom the Abkhazians urged to come their help [anticipating more recent events! -- Editor]. As a result, its former territories of the Tskhum and, in part, the Bedian provinces were returned to the Abkhazian princedom. This facilitated the presence in these territories of significant communities of Abkhazian-speaking peasants. In this way the ethnic frontier between Abkhazians and Kartvelians, which until the start of the IInd millennium of our era had extended as far as the R. Ingur, was not only restored but acquired simultaneously a state-political status, which has now been preserved for 300 years.
A Turkish fleet first appeared off the walls of Sevastopolis a year after the capture by Ottoman Turks of Constantinople, and in 1475, with the fall of Kaffe, the Genoese colonial system in the Black Sea was liquidated. In 1578 the Turks dispersed in a very short time over the shores of the bay of Sukhum and in the first half of the XVIIth century, unable to gain control of the coast by land, blockaded it with their fleet from the sea. In 1723 they erected the fortress of Anaklia at the mouth of the Ingur and a year later built a fortress with four bastions on the ruins of the ancient Sevastopolis. In the 1730s from 70 to 112 Turkish soldiers served in Sukhum-Kalë (as Sevastopolis began to be called), with more than 70 in Anaklia. Strengthening of political, economic and cultural contacts with the Ottoman empire over the course of the XVIth to XVIIIth centuries led to the gradual spread of Islam of the Sunni doctrine amongst part of the Abkhazian population, in the first instance the feudals and their circle. During the time of Turkish domination the slave-trade also flourished in Abkhazia , the source, no doubt, of the Abkhaz-speaking African community that could still be found around the village of Adzjwybzha until well into the 20th century.
The Alans were the ancestors of today's Ossetians, who speak an Iranian language [Editor].
The traditional dividing line between western and central/eastern Georgia [Editor].
Q’aukhchishvili, on p.636 of volume II of his 1959 edition of these Chronicles, glosses the term 'Apsars' as 'one of the Georgian tribes in Western Georgia', for which interpretation he adduces no evidence whatsoever, and, of course, there is none [Editor].